If recent history is any guide, embattled BP (BP) Chief Executive Tony Hayward will get asked Thursday by his U.S. congressional inquisitors whether he flew to Washington to testify about the oil spill on one of the company's half-dozen or so private aircraft. There's no good answer to this question.
If Hayward says "yes," he'll be accused of enjoying cushy corporate creature comforts while millions of Gulf Coast residents suffer in the wake of the deadly April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that has created the worst oil spill in U.S. history. A "no" answer may lead people to think that the company is trying too hard to score PR points.
The reality is that Hayward has little other choice but to take a BP jet. A private plane is the only practical way to transport a high-profile executive who likely needs both extra security because he's likey facing death threats and to be in constant communications with people overseeing the cleanup. Not surprisingly, BP declined to comment for this story.
Cut Corners on Safety
Private aircraft got a black eye in 2008 after news broke that the CEOs of the Big Three automakers traveled to Washington seeking billions of dollars in federal bailout in luxurious corporate jets. The "optics," as the experts say, were terrible. None of the executives clearly articulated the many sound business reasons for not flying commercially, including airline schedules that don't get them where they need to be when they need to be there. Of course, BP has made so many public relations blunders that it will likely mishandle this issue as well.
Hayward's transportation choice, though, is the least of his problems. Documents released to the Associated Press show that BP cut corners at the expense of safety. It's a no-brainer to assume that the topic of safety will come up at today's congressional hearings on the oil spill, which feature Lamar McKay, the head of BP America Inc. He's arguing that the U.S. needs oil from the Gulf of Mexico.
McKay is right, of course, but he's delivering a message Congress doesn't want to hear, and part of the reason for that is Hayward. At times, Hayward's arrogance has simply been breathtaking. Crisis communications experts have argued that the CEO's big mouth has made the cleanup more difficult.
Prepped by an Expert
So, Hayward is trying to avoid repeating his errors as he prepared to meet President Obama for another tongue lashing tomorrow before Thursday's congressional testimony.
As the U.K.'s Telegraph newspaper points out: "Mr Hayward is currently being coached by a team of lobbyists and public speaking experts as to how best handle the [congressional] grilling." Among his consultants is Hillary Rosen, managing director of the Washington office of Brunswick Group. She was the head of the Recording Industry Association of America during its hugely unpopular battle against Napster over digital piracy, so she understands what it's like to be in the midst of a maelstrom of negative publicity. Rosen also is very well connected.
Public relations can do only so much, though. Moreover, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee that's questioning Hayward, is one of Congress's most feared members. He has made mincemeat out of countless executives, in the tobacco industry, from Enron and at health care companies. Conservative Republicans hate him passionately.
"Has there ever been a time when 18-term liberal Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman's nostrils weren't flaring indignantly at corporate executives and entrepreneurs?" asked right wing pundit Michelle Malkin in March. "He throws the weight of his congressional chairmanship around like a sumo wrestler walking across hot stones. For more than 35 years, Waxman has made it his taxpayer-funded business to use the power of government to undermine private business. "
Waxman, though, doesn't spend much time worrying about his critics. That's something Hayward should ponder during his nearly 1,100 mile flight from New Orleans to Washington aboard a BP corporate aircraft.
Taking a Company Plane to D.C. Wouldn't Be BP CEO Tony Hayward's Worst Move